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The Strangest Nine Months of My Career at Apple

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Two years running our federal team had done better than any other team at Apple. We were ahead of our previous years going into the summer of 2003.

Steve Jobs announced the G5 products on June 23, 2003. In doing so he broke his promise to never pre-announce products. Almost two months later we were still waiting to get our "Product First Off Lines" units for our Reston briefing center. We could not even show the product much less let customers test it. Federal customers couldn't order it until they had run their tests. Then we ran out of G4 systems that we could ship directly to federal customers in July. It was two months to the federal year end and we had no product until the G5s shipped.

While all of that sounded bad with the end of our sales year looming, it was about to get worse. In September of 2003 it came down to shipping Dual G5 systems to Virginia Tech for their newly announced System X Super Computer or shipping units to the federal group.

Our brand new enterprise vice president promised that if our units could go to Virginia Tech in early September, our customers would still get their dual G5s before the end of the sales year. Virginia Tech did get their product. Our customers did not and it caused us to miss our sales number. Then the new vice president managed to make the shortfall in sales our fault so he could force some changes. He was determined to turn our very successful sales team into a model that he liked when he worked at Oracle.

To this day, I am still not certain what happened and why he took such a dislike to the federal team and the successful way we were doing business. In my nearly twenty years at Apple, the next nine months were the strangest. When our new vice president got on a conference call with us, I was forbidden from speaking. I had to pass notes to other team members to get my comments heard. I got so frustrated that I offered my resignation to the head of human resources. I did not want the federal team I had worked so hard to build destroyed but he rejected it and told me that I would just have to live with the situation since vice presidents were allowed to do what they wanted.

It got even worse when we went to the sales conference. Instead of going directly to a reception after our sales meeting was over for the day like the rest of the teams, our vice president told me that we had to stay for a special meeting. He started the meeting by telling us that fifty percent growth was nothing. He said that we were going to try this enterprise thing for one more year, and if it didn't work, he would fire us all. He said that we were too expensive for the Pomme Company and the company would be better off spinning us off, selling us, and giving the money to the iTunes store.

There was one thing our vice president had right. It was the description he had given me as we walked into the meeting. He told me that it was going to be "a behind the woodshed beating." It was.

This was the first sales meeting in my career that was dedicated to telling a team how worthless they were. It went against everything I knew about sales. It made no sense since we had just come off two years when we grew the business an average of 70 percent each year and the only reason we did not do as well this year was the company did not ship the product our customers ordered. As the meeting finished, none of the promised buses showed up to take us back to the hotel and the reception. We had to thumb rides with corporate employees who were late heading over to the meeting.

We were all shaken. I promised myself that I would never be ambushed again at a California sales meeting.

A few weeks later on December 18, 2003, my job got even more complex. I received a phone call in our Reston, Virginia office from the secretary for the vice president of information systems at Virginia Tech. The message was that Erv, the vice president and a friend for the last fourteen years, needed to meet with me and would drive to wherever I was in the state of Virginia.
I was shocked, but I quickly responded that I was on my way back to Roanoke, and I could meet him for dinner in Roanoke that night. As soon as the meeting was set, I called the higher education rep covering Virginia Tech. I found out that there were problems with Virginia Tech's System X cluster. Virginia Tech felt their needs and wishes were being misrepresented at the Pomme Company's executive level.

The rep felt that it would be helpful if Virginia Tech got to meet with me and had an opportunity to vent. He suggested I call one of the Pomme Company's product people who was on campus helping to film a segment about the System X cluster. It turned out to be the Xserver product manager, who I had convinced to live in Blacksburg back in the nineties when he was a system engineer. From him I learned that Steve Jobs was planning to use the video clip being done at Virginia Tech in his MacWorld presentation.

I was glad for the few hours drive home because I needed time to gather my thoughts. We had agreed to meet for dinner at a restaurant under ten minutes from my house and about 45 minutes from Virginia Tech. It was a pleasure to see my old friend Erv, and meet Pat, his vice president of super computing. While I had been out to see their cluster being built, I had not taken time to catch up with Erv.

Virginia Tech was facing a serious situation. Due to some memory issues, the cluster had become an expensive bookend. They wanted Apple's help in getting it updated with G5 Xserves. In spite of making it very clear to the Pomme Company's vice president of education that Virginia Tech hands were tied due to state procurement rules, it seemed as if the education vice president was pushing forward with the message that Virginia Tech was willing and able to buy a new cluster without any help from the Pomme Company on the old machines.

The situation was dire. IBM had offered to replace the cluster at little or no cost to Virginia Tech. Erv told me that he was within three days of throwing the Pomme Company off campus. He did not believe that the Pomme Company wanted that to happen especially given that a film crew was on campus creating the clip to be played at SJ's MacWorld presentation. He was completely frustrated with the Pomme Company's education management and wanted help at breaking what he saw as a logjam.

Having known and worked with Erv for years, I knew he wasn't bluffing. I knew that if the Pomme Comany didn't start paying attention, Erv would do exactly what he said, call a press conference, announce the problem with System X, and throw the Pomme Company off campus.

It would be a huge blow to our efforts. Erv and Pat confirmed the steady stream of federal customers who had been visiting System X and the large number of inquiries they had received after participating at our federal booth at the recent SuperComputing show.

I asked Erv for time to make some phone calls and see if I could help them with the situation. They agreed that I could have a couple of days to see if I could find someone to help break the logjam and resolve the problem.

I immediately knew that I was between a rock and a hard place. The best customer that I had ever worked with was facing a serious situation. However, I knew that providing the information that I had received to upper management would really shake things up. I knew the education vice president would not be happy to caught in a lie, but I also was sure a call to him would fall on deaf ears.

I made what I knew might be a fatal decision. I placed a call to Bud and left a detailed voicemail on the situation. I knew that Bud had Steve Jobs' ear. He also valued what was happening at Virginia Tech. I also placed a call to Tim and left a similar voicemail for him.

Then I prepared for the fallout and hoped that the risk would be worth the reward of keeping Virginia Tech on the Pomme Company's platform and helping System X get back on its feet.

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